Johannesburg — Journalists were forced to take off their shoes, and get down on their knees before Venda traditional leaders at a media briefing in Johannesburg on Sunday.
The bizarre briefing was over a report by the Sowetan newspaper last week that SABC chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng had been given a wife as a gift.
At the start of the briefing by Mudzi Wa Vhurereli ha Vhavenda, a lobby group of Venda traditional leaders and healers, reporters were instructed to remove their shoes and get on bended knees so that they could perform a cultural ritual before beginning.
Most journalists were stunned by the instruction, but got down so that the briefing could go ahead.
Members of Mudzi, in brightly coloured traditional attire, and two young bare-breasted women constantly bowed and did loud ritual ululating throughout the briefing before each member could speak.
This ritual sometimes required them to lie on the floor.
Only one in the group, Gladys Nethengwe, could speak some English. Before the briefing could begin, she asked if any of the media present could translate for them, as they all only spoke in their traditional Venda tongue. She was under the impression that the different media groups had their own interpreters there.
Despite the language barrier, she proceeded to start the briefing in her mother-tongue but was interrupted by journalists.
After some convincing, Nethengwe agreed to translate what each member was saying.
One of the bare-breasted women was Vanessa Mutswari, the 23-year-old college student who was reportedly given to Motsoeneng as a gift. Mutswari said she was engaged to be married to someone else and that the June 13 report in the Sowetan was not true.
"I'm saying with my own mouth, I was not given to anybody," Nethengwe interpreted for Mutswari.
"That is not Venda tradition. I'm proud of what I am and my culture. I was not half-naked. It's a shedo [Tshivenda traditional attire]. I will continue wearing it."
She said the report in the Sowetan last Friday had caused problems for her and almost destroyed her pending marriage.
Mutswari, an avid soccer player and a college beauty queen, said life would go on despite the article and that she would talk to her husband-to-be about it.
Nethengwe, interpreting for other members of Mudzi, dismissed the allegation that ten girls were lined up for Motsoeneng.
She said there were only four girls that were part of a procession, and two were ushers.
"What is being said is not true. According to Venda law, if someone visits you, you have to give gifts," she said.
"We offered a cow... We gave the entire SABC a cow and a calf. It was not directed to a certain somebody."
She explained that the girls left the procession to accompany Motsoeneng to show him his gifts.
"Our hearts are bleeding because of the lies," Nethengwe translated for another member.
"A wife cannot be given to any ordinary person. A chief is entitled to choose two or more girls with a pre-arrangement with parents."
She said Venda King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana, who is not part of their lobby group, was disturbed and saddened by the reports in the media.
The Sowetan carried the report with a picture of Motsoeneng next to the woman and the cow, and Sapa lifted the story from them.
The group insisted on giving a hard copy response to the Sowetan and Sapa on the matter on Sunday.
They instructed the Sowetan and Sapa journalists separately to come to the front to collect the document. After much resistance from the reporters, Mudzi demanded the document be taken as it was their response to what they claimed were "lies" printed in the publications.
The leaders instructed the reporters to get down on their knees to receive the paper, while a ritual was carried out. Reporters refused but were told they could not go ahead unless they got down on their knees.
Something that looked like grain was put onto the document, then what sounded like a prayer was said.
The bare-breasted women lay on the floor next to the journalists while this happened.
The grain was rolled off the paper into a pot, and the paper handed to the journalists by the bare-breasted girls.
Last Friday, the Sowetan newspaper reported that traditional Venda chiefs gave Motsoeneng a wife, a cow and a calf as a gift.
It reported that 10 women were lined up in Thohoyandou, Limpopo, for Motsoeneng to choose one as a wife. He and other SABC executives were in the area for a meeting with Mudzi.
"The girls were around 10 and they paraded for him to choose. He chose the one he liked," Mudzi executive secretary Humbelani Nemakonde was quoted as saying in the Sowetan report.
"All the girls were there with their parents. Their parents knew what was going to happen and they all agreed."
On Sunday, the group dismissed quotes in the story by Nemakonde and others as untrue.
It further demanded a retraction of the reports.